In the modern world, spending a workday without using a mobile phone or the internet is pretty rare. Most employees are increasingly dependent on digital technologies to stay in touch and to complete even the most basic work tasks.
But despite the benefits, there are concerns about where this immersion in digital technology is taking us – particularly when it comes to our mental health.
Monitoring and managing
The risks to the modern digital worker have not gone unnoticed by HR professionals and large organisations at the forefront of technological innovation.
Cisco Systems Australia’s general manager of government affairs and policy, Tim Fawcett, says his organisation is yet to see digital overload emerge as a problem within its workforce, but recognises the potential for mental health challenges.
“Mental health is a rising risk to modern society and when people are living intensely digital lives, mental health issues need to be monitored,” he explains.
Fawcett acknowledges that problems can arise from workers being ‘always connected’, particularly given the growing number of employees working remotely and with colleagues in different time zones.
“We operate with 75,000 employees in 150 countries and are probably at the cutting edge of using digital tools in the workplace. We allow staff to ‘work their own way’ and obtain a work/life balance,” he says.
According to Robert Orth, IBM Australia and New Zealand’s director of human resources, his organisation is very supportive of digital technology and tools that can provide flexible work options.
In Orth’s view, the benefits digital tools bring in terms of flexibility far outweigh their risks.
“We believe social networking tools like IBM Connections, which is used extensively by IBMers, can help save time and maximise collaboration and innovation as the tools foster closer working with colleagues who are not co-located,” he says.
Despite the benefits, HR professionals need to ensure the issues created by extensive use of digital tools are being addressed.
Fawcett believes it is essential for HR to develop appropriate policies and help managers guide employees. “Managers and staff need appropriate training in the area and on tools they can use to manage digital usage.”
There is also an important pro-active monitoring role for HR to identify the risks for particular jobs or people.
“It is not hard to identify the people at risk, as they may be teams with a lot on and it is appropriate for HR managers to send communication to remind people what is available to them,” Fawcett says.
Orth believes staff members also need to be responsible. “Employees need to be sensible about their use of technology. We have HR programs and training to assist employees to manage their work/life balance so that they can contribute their full energy and talent to IBM,” he says.
Avoiding digital burnout
Although organisations are increasingly recognising the risks, the heavy work demands placed on HR professionals means they need to ensure they do not fall victim to digital exhaustion.
Fawcett recognises the risks of always being digitally connected, but says his personal circumstances make the problem unlikely. “I have young children, so I am quite brutal in going off-grid for a few hours each day,” he admits cheerfully.
“I drop my kids off several days a week and make up the hours later in the day, or at night. I find I am not at risk of digital burnout, but it suits my work and life better and I feel better that I have that flexibility.”
Ironically, often the solution to digital overload is more technology.
“You definitely need to use the tools at your disposal, such as desktop collaboration and instant messaging,” Fawcett says.
“Consider using these tools to avoid the commute and peak-hour traffic, and to give time back to yourself.”
Unified communications platforms such as Cisco Jabber provide a single interface for instant messaging, voice and video messaging, desktop sharing and conferencing applications. “People need to use the tools that are available and not allow technology to rule their lives,” Fawcett says.